Between Cold Water, Algae and the Jellyfish

Even in quite big floods there are ‘safe’ places to swim in the river but it is little fun having to fight against currents and cooler water.  So, as a consequence of recent weather conditions the river has been off limits and sea swimming has begun to feature again.

The sea around here is at its coldest in the middle of February when temperatures can dip to 5 or 6 Celsius. The temperature then trends upwards to 19 or 20 Celsius in mid-September where after it dips sharply towards the New Year.  The most pleasant swimming is to be had therefore between now, early June and September.

There are however 2 factors that stand in the way of a long happy summer at sea and the first is already upon us: the jellyfish are here early this year.  They can be wonderful to watch, the huge ‘barrels’ and the transparent ‘crystals’, but it is the compass that come in greatest numbers.

The compass are undoubtedly pretty but they can leave a rash a little like a nettle and they can trail tentacles with sting cells (nematocysts) for up to 2m.  They are also very quick in the water, they don’t just waft on the current and they can ‘see’.  Often if you are able to swim close to them and throw a shadow on them they will in a matter of moments be heading downwards out of harm’s way.

One compass, two compasses, they are most often seen few and far between but when the currents are just right they can mark out the boundary between apparently indistinct bodies of water.  On one such evening last year off Meadfoot Beach the boundary stretched nearly a kilometre and as a ready reckoner I estimated the number at over 5000.  I was very glad to be on the paddleboard at the time.

The other is the algae.  That has been awful the last few years and out of nowhere the shore waters look like they are filled with mulched tissue paper, except it is reddish-brown and it stinks of prawns beyond their best before date.  Some bays and beaches fill completely and in other places it can form a coastal swathe 100m out to sea.  Swimming in it is vile and it stays with you for a day or two no matter what.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

So between cold water, algae and jellyfish there is a window of opportunity and that would seem to be right here, right now.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall



The Towel Two Step

Scabbacombe is unofficially a naturist beach, though what The National Trust who own it might think about that I’m not sure.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Now, if you want to go and take your clothes off and lie in the sun then fair enough Scabbacombe is quite discrete as beaches go.

The key word in that sentence is ‘discrete’.

This is a public beach, people take the kids there and whilst nudity is the natural state there is a subtle difference between ‘lie in the sun’ and ‘sprawl in the sun’.  And, discrete to display to flaunt to flashing is a continuum that means different things to different people under different circumstances.

I am however aware that I am to some degree in residence in a glass house here.  I cannot be doing with the towel two step let alone dry robes, adopting instead the ‘get changed, do it swiftly and discretely and don’t look at the person standing next to you’ method.

Now, if I stood and stared at one of the naturists I am fairly sure I’d get a slap.  Why then should one of them feel it appropriate to stare at me (wearing my swimming leggings, a sure indicator that I’m not one of the flashing community) and then come up to me to discuss the merits of waterproof cameras whilst hanging in the breeze?

By all means do your own thing, but please do it over there.

I have nothing against naturists.

And I would like to keep it that way.

But all that said, it is only for a few weeks in the year; September to May I have the place to myself.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

A 6th Sense.

Either there are more seals or they are less shy than they once were.  Even back 10 years ago I considered it quite a moment to see a dark head silhouetted against the blue water, though usually only at a distance.

I have had some exciting close encounters too, both good and bad.

There was the time a drifted down the tide near Bell Rock and got within yards of what looked like a pup just shedding is baby fur where he was basking on a rock.  Another time I found a lobster pot buoy wedged high and dry on some rocks and having untangled it and the length of rope I towed it back to the beach with an inquisitive seal getting steadily closer and closer.  Then there is always the seal at Churston Cove who thinks it is fun to swim up and bump your feet, then surface a few feet away watching and waiting and as soon as you swim off again she bumps again.  The first couple of times it made me jump, now it is part and parcel and I know the feel of seal to be soft and yielding and a bit like wet chamois leather.

That has been good to know because there have been other times when something has bumped me and I am now able to tell; it’s soft and a bit slippery, it’s a seal.

Some of those encounters have however not gone so well.  In murky water a seal finds out what you are: food, something to be avoided, something to be chased away or something to get, ahem, more friendly with, by biting.  A seal’s head is actually not dissimilar to a dog’s only 4 times the size and several investigative bites have left me with nicks in my wetsuit or dribbling blood.  Some people get a bit worked up by that: seal’s bites are infectious, go and get antibiotics.  For me or the seal?  I have been around long enough, much of the time up to my elbows in it that any seal foolish to bite me probably will need antibiotics, but if it thinks I limping to the vet to help it out it can damn well think again.

All in all though I have been bitten frequently enough to have developed a 6th sense.  I had a feeling there would be one at St Mary’s Bay the other day and there it was, an inquisitive young one who got within 10 feet of where I was wading in the shallows, but I was going no further and sure enough a little further out an altogether larger, darker, more menacing profile rose and submerged.  A second young one bobbed up too.

Seals at Churson, Elberry, St Mary’s and even Newfoundland Cove are almost a case of more often than not.  Mansands, rarely, Long Sands once, Scabbacombe once or twice.

Today it’s a little after low tide, the sand has been stripped from the foreshore leaving the water full of sand and silt and I just know that somewhere out there today, waiting …. I can feel it, just like you know, though it may only have happened a few times in your life, you know when you wake up that there has been snow overnight.  It is as if you can hear that anechoic silence.  Somewhere out there in that flat calm sea, I can feel it.

I wade out scanning the water. Nothing. I swim out to clearer water.  The gulls are nesting on the cliff and start yammering away at me.  One of them swoops down harrying me, skimming the water just a few feet away then rising up at the end of the pass, making a loop and then back it comes.  This is a regular springtime game here and will be kept up until I turn away from the cliff.  Another gull passes higher overhead and tries a more direct approach pattern bombing the water to my right, its aim is rubbish, fortunately.

I have crossed the bay and swum back to the beach and reached the shallows where I can stand.  Scanning along the surf line and I see there, not 20m away, is a dark head.  It ducks down looking guilty and resurfaces, the water can be no more than waist deep.  We stare at each other and again the seal ducks down only to be forced back up immediately by the next wave.  Then with a casual turn that says ‘I was leaving anyway’ it slides under the water again and vanishes.

And this is how things should be, he keeps his distance over there and I’m not bleeding.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

As Rare as an Honest Politician

Sunshine that is.

Well that’s not quite true, there has been sunshine.  There has also been a lot of rain and almost constant howling gales and, hand on heart, every time I have stepped outside things have been perfect right up to the moment I’ve got to the beach.

Take last Tuesday for example.  It was an extremely low spring tide which gave me the opportunity to walk the shoreline from Mansands to Scabbacombe without the scrambling.  The air was still and warm in the sunshine, and in the shelter beneath the high cliffs spring was indeed in the air.  Until that is I reached the tricky headland at the far end of Long Sands.  Now the wind funnelled across Scabbacombe beach, the clouds appeared out of nowhere and spread rapidly out from the cliff top and with them came the rain.  Icy cold rain driving in sheets.  In seconds the dry rocks were transformed into water slides and by the time I reached the relative shelter of the beach and cliffs I was wringing wet.  I could not have got any wetter if I’d walked into the sea, and I would have got a lot colder either.

I squelched up the hill along the footpath that was now a mud filled stream, the wind still whipping me with bucketful after bucketful of rain.

Bad luck you say.  Conspiracy I say because no sooner had I reached the car than the clouds blew away and the sunshine returned.  And that is not the only time this has happened in recent weeks.   Last Friday it was almost a repeat performance at Breakwater Beach.

And damn it, it is going to do the same again, I am jogging back down North Boundary Road to the car to grab my bag to walk down to Fishcombe Cove and the rain is darting at me from the one and only cloud in the sky.  The cloud is following me.  I turn the corner and the cloud turns to follow.  I dither under the tailgate of the car until the cloud losses interest and then nip across the road and duck under the tree cover, if I’m lucky the cloud won’t notice until it’s too late.

Fishcombe Cove across to Churston Cove is bathed in sunshine and is sheltered from both wind and waves.  It’s a little after high tide but it is only a low neap, coming barely half way up the newly rebuilt steps.  The steps got wrecked last autumn and I thought there was little chance they would be repaired as they are out of sight and suffer few users, austerity cut-backs being what they are.  However, both these and the bottom couple of steps on the coast path over at Churston Cove have been restored.  However, standing on the lowest step in the waist deep water which is suffused with green light and quite clear down to the seabed of jumbled stones and wispy seaweed fronds, the chill of the water is a sharp reminder that despite the warm sunshine spring officially is still two weeks away (Monday 20th March, 10:29 local time in the UK).

I push off from the step and I am quickly out of my depth.  Out in the middle of the bay the waves swing up and down with their crests just breaking into myriad glittering jewels.  People are watching from Churston Beach.  I am watching for the seal who can be friendly and also less friendly.

Lying back and kicking up fountains of water I glance over my shoulder and spy the grey blanket of cloud sweeping over Torquay.  It is rising up over the headland and sweeping my way.  That is my signal to leave.

I am towelling furiously as the first raindrops hit.  Forget it, clothes on, now!  A dash of rain hits and instantly the concrete walkway darkens, but I am already hauling my sweatshirt on and begin stuffing my towel into the bag.  I’m done and have just time to wave at the lady now going in for her swim before dashing for the meagre shelter of the trees.

It’s just normal, perfectly healthy paranoia.  Everyone suffers from it.

But that doesn’t mean the clouds are not following me.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Where Did You Swim Today?

It surprises me that time and again I see comments on swimming forums along the lines of: “we went for our swim but the tide was out”, “the river was in flood” and of course “we went looking for this swimming place but couldn’t find it.”  Some of these are merely an inconvenience, but on other occasions having made the effort to reach a place it may become a case of ‘swim and be damned’ even if conditions are dubious and swimming best avoided.

Consequently it would perhaps be helpful then to highlight some of the prolific on-line resources that can be accessed before ever setting foot outside the door.  Web site addresses are given at the end and were current and working when this was published.

Where am I going today?

For South Devon I would like to claim that my Google Map Click Here  is the definitive outdoor swimming resource.  It’s not of course as it is not possible to regularly keep up with the 180 places I have listed.   However, when planning out your trip there are many map resources some more helpful than others.

My personal favourite is ‘Streetmap’.  This is less a route planner than some of the others but gives greater detail on the chosen location and offers a very comprehensive ‘smart search’ for town or village names etc. but also ‘features’.  If, for example, you search for Red Lake then one of the four results and the only one in Devon is a favourite swimming place out in the middle of Dartmoor.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The standard view is 1:50000, but the stepped scales include the 1:25000 Ordnance Survey mapping, with details of parking places, footpaths, public access land, etc. and is perhaps the most useful level of detail.

Maps are of course all very well but they don’t show you for instance if the car park will hold 5 cars or 50.  As an example the National Trust car park at Prawle Point is shown on the OS Map and from that information alone you will know that a parking fee is due from non-members.  This is where ‘Google Earth’ comes in to its own, which is free from Google and provides the clearest and most up-to-date views.  Zoomed in to a scale that shows individual cars it is a little blurry, but it is simple enough to pick out footpaths through fields, roadside lay-bys that will take a single car and for swimmers both the place they plan to swim and importantly access points to the water.  The current view shows 7 cars in the car park at Prawle Point and clearly from that it is apparent it will take about 15 at the very most.  There is no other parking for some distance and putting all that together it is simple enough to work out that arriving early is probably advisable.

Panning and tilting the Google Earth view is also a good way to visualise the profile of the location, for example, how steep the cliffs are.  Using the ‘Ruler’ utility on the task bar allows you to make ‘as the crow flies’ measurements or plot and save a route with waypoints and of course you can place markers for your favourite (swimming) places with appropriate icons.

The above are all very well but they won’t give you a clear picture of the actual location.  Simply searching the likes of Google for the location and selecting ‘images’ will very likely provide you with an abundance of photographs.  For example searching for Sharrah Pool on Google provides hundreds of hits, but these are not always 100% reliable.  As I am looking at it today the 8th image is not Sharrah Pool (it’s 3 skinny dippers at Wellsfoot) and even reputable resources like get it wrong (FYI that’s Bellpool) either because the individual image is wrongly tagged or because it has been taken for example from a blog post about visiting Sharrah Pool and the picture has been pulled out because of the tags associated with the blog and not the individual image.  However, some people do post pictures blissfully unaware of where they were when they took it.

There are also other swimming themed maps, which may give directions, images and safety information.  However, most of these rely on input from individuals that is usually not peer reviewed.  Using Sharrah Pool again as an example you could have a description that says ‘a 2 mile, 40 minute walk, from the car park through woodland along a clear path to the 100m long, deep pool with places to jump in’.  As it stands that is correct, it is exactly 2 miles and the path is reasonable, but if you were not so agile on your feet or were visually impaired it would be challenging (and I have lost count of the number of people I have had to give directions to because they have turned back or otherwise assumed they have lost the way).  The pool is often quoted as ‘100m’, but only 70m is deep enough to swim.  There are places to jump in, but they are not the places that appear immediately obvious and there are a lot of underwater rocks that cannot be seen.  And the river is prone to flash flooding in this deeply cut valley that takes run off from a large area of very wet moorland.  Simply put, one person’s idyllic swim could very easily be another person’s nightmare if the information is taken at face value without due consideration for changing weather and seasons.

That leads very neatly to:  What is it like today?

How, you may be thinking, is it possible to find out what the water conditions are right now without going and taking a look?  Once again the internet is your friend.

Begin with a weather forecast.  There are numerous resources but for simplicity I like the BBC.  Some information is immediately obvious: is the sun shining?  Then take sunscreen.  Is it raining or going to rain?  Then take a coat but also use common sense in so much as, if it is raining heavily now will the river be in flood when the sun comes out this afternoon?

Other information is available and can be used to make informed choices.  Most forecasts show a wind speed and direction which is particularly relevant at the coast.  If there is a strong onshore wind the chances are that the sea will be rough.  However, it may be that a short distance away, on the other side of a headland for example, the wind is conversely blowing offshore and the beach is in the lee of high cliffs.  The sea is therefore likely to be sheltered and calm, but that strong wind is blowing offshore and if you go out of the shelter of the headland you may well find getting back in to the beach is a challenge.

‘Magicseaweed’ provides possibly the easiest means to access actual wave height measurements in real time from a network of buoys at sea.  You don’t need to guess how rough the water is, you can find out right now.

Before considering sources of information on tides it would be as well to outline why there are tides in the first place.  The short answer is because the gravity of the sun and moon pull the water on the surface of the Earth towards them making the water bulge, but in a balancing act that stops the whole affair spinning hopelessly out of control the bulge on one side of the Earth is matched by a second on the opposite side of the planet.  The Earth rotates every 24 hours and because the bulges are held in place by the forces of gravity the apparent effect is that 2 waves sweep around the Earth 12 hours apart giving 2 high tides at any point every day (and 2 low tides to maintain the balance).  From this simplistic model it would be reasonable to assume that each day the high and low tides will happen at the same time of day and I know people who have made that assumption only to find there was no water at the beach.

The situation is however made more complicated by the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun every year and the Moon orbits the Earth every 29 days.  Consequently the time of high tide advances by about 6 hours every 7 days.  For example, if at a beach high tide is at 12 noon on day 1, 7 days later it will be low tide at noon, 7 days later high tide again (except the 29 day lunar cycle does not divide equally by 7 days, nor does the Earth orbit the Sun exactly every 365 days so the times slowly creep).

Finally, if the Sun and the Moon are on the same side of the Earth or oppose each other their gravities work together to produce higher than average ‘spring’ tides, but if they are at 90 degrees to each other in the sky the gravities work against each other to give smaller than average ‘neap’ tides.

There are again many tidal resources on-line but UK Admiralty ‘EasyTide’ has information for sea ports all around the world, an easy map based locality finder and free predictions for 7 days.  There is also a simple adjustment for British Summer Time.  The graphical interface also shows the spring and neap tides from which you can deduce how fast the tide will be moving as generally a bigger tide = faster flow.

From the point of view of the observer standing on a beach it would appear that a tide comes in and goes out, rises and falls.  However thinking about a bulge of water that creates a wave moving around the world analogy it should be apparent that as the ground seemingly approaches the bulge it would be as though the water is moving towards you and once past the bulge the water is moving away.  If the beach looks east-west then the water will apparently come in and go out, but looking north-south the water will apparently move sideways and then reverse.  A sailing almanac has port-by-port charts showing current flow direction throughout a full day along with flow speeds as the tide rises and falls.

‘Visit My Harbour’ provides larger scale overviews and taking Torbay as an example it is easy to see that as a general principal 3 hours either side of high tide the current flows eastward (northward in the confines of Torbay due to the shape of the coast) but westward (southward in the bay) 3 hours either side of low tide.  The flow is not generally great but can become locally magnified due to the shape of the seabed and coastline.  Consequently if swimming off a beach in Torbay currents are not a major worry, but Thatcher Rock is only a few 100m off shore and it would be tempting to swim out to it, after all, how could you go wrong?  Except that when the current flows it becomes confined in the channel and will rush by at 8 to 10 Knots (roughly mph) and becomes a churning mess and if you try to swim in that then you might get to France but you are unlikely to get to Thatcher Rock.

For rivers a similar resource is available in England through the Environment Agency (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are covered by independent resources).  The EA maintains an extensive network of river level monitoring stations and the data is displayed graphically on-line sometimes as an almost live feed, though a 3 hour lag is often the case.  The information shows the normal river level and also the changes to the level over the preceding 5 days.  Crucially from the pattern of data it is easy to see if the river level is rising upstream and thereby work out if it is likely to be coming on to flood downstream where you intend to swim.

There is however no substitute for actually being able to see right here and now what conditions are like at the beach or in the river.  Fortunately there are web cams at many locations though feeds are often lost for days or weeks.  Magicseaweed on-line offers a drop down menu for coastal web cams though it is not exhaustive and Farson Digital Water Cams covers many inland waters.  So for example as I write this I can see that the water in the River Dart at Buckfastleigh has dropped back from the flood conditions of the weekend but that the surf at Bantham means it would not be favourable for a swim around Burgh Island any time soon.

All of this may seem out of proportion just to go swimming but it can make all the difference.  For instance early on Sunday morning the sky was clear, there was a beautiful sunrise and no wind at home with my choices being the River Dart or Teignmouth Beach.  A few moments researching conditions whilst drinking a coffee told me the river level was falling and was nearly back to ‘normal’ and that there would be no wind.  Whilst those were ideal swimming conditions I would rather have gone to Teignmouth.  Clearly however, even though the wind had dropped the surf kicked up at Teignmouth by the storm overnight on Friday had not lessened.  Consequently I had my pleasant if rather dull river swim and later saw comments by someone who had intended to swim at Teignmouth and got there only to find the sea unswimmable.  “Smug mode.”

All in all taking a look at some of these resources whilst planning a swim, understanding the implications and finally checking other details just before setting off can make the difference between a great swim and a huge disappointment.

Resources:  (most can be found by searching on-line for the web site name rather then copying the URL)


Google Earth:  download the application from the Google home page.

Wild Swim Map:

Wild Swimming Map UK:

Wild Swimming Devon:

BBC Weather:


Admiralty EasyTide:

Visit My Harbour Tidal Flow Charts:

Environment Agency England:

Farson Digital Water Cams:

Overstaying the Welcome.

10°C or less and I set the time I can comfortably be in water without the wetsuit as 1 minute for every degree, so 5 degrees, 5 minutes.  Fairly straight-forward.  But if it is a sunny day that time can extend out several minutes as it is surprising how much warmth the sun gives both to the water and of course drying afterwards.  The trick is not to outstay the welcome.

Today is one such gloriously sunny day and there is not a hint of breeze.  The sea oozes crudely like oil, but, unlike oil, it is clear (up to a point) and bottle green in the depths.  Diving from the rocks into the green depths I hardly notice the sharp chill. Re-surfacing and the water behind me effervesces.

I swim off under the cliff where the low winter sunshine blinks at me through the bare trees and dips and rises above the edge of the cliff as the gentle swell lifts and drops me.

The rocks here have been gnawed by barnacles and dissolved by seawater so as to become deep pitted and sharp fluted.  It is fascinating to look at but painful to bump into and after just a few moments in the water my fingers and toes are already numbing with the chill and I know from experience I would not feel a thing if I were to grate across the surface, only feeling it later when I notice the blood.

The beach opens up ahead where there are a few walkers and their dogs, but otherwise it is a typical January mid-day, all quiet on the beach front.

My fingers and toes are really numb now and clambering out over the sharp rocks takes a little more care than usual.  I have clearly been in too long as despite the added sunshine there are cold fingers skittering up and down my spine and I have got the shakes, I definitely overstayed my welcome.

Open Sky Swimming Devon Map

Outdoor Wild Swimming’ Beginner’s Guide.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming has become a go to phrase in recent years  It is part of the ‘wild’ revolution: wild camping, wild swimming, wild running, all of which could equally be termed ‘outdoor’ or ‘open sky’.  However, whilst running, camping, and let’s add cycling for good measure; whilst all the above clearly have by their very definition an intrinsic outdoor element, swimming has become something that is synonymous with indoor pools and chlorine.  In the context of swimming then a little definition of ‘wild’ is perhaps advised.

Wild Camping could be defined as ‘not at a campsite’, the open sky bit goes without saying surely.  Wild Running or Cycling are equally away from city streets or roadsides but are instead on trails or green lanes, footpaths or open hills.  Wild Swimming presents a dilemma.  Clearly a lido is ‘open sky’ but with a lifeguard and coffee shop to hand anyone thinking of it as wild is clearly delusional.  However, a natural sea pool enhanced by people is open sky but is it wild?  Is a river running through a town wild?  Well, we would be fooling ourselves to think any river in flood is within our control so wildness can be a condition as well as place.  The town beach may be open sky and in summer with ice cream vendors to hand it does not seem wild, but out of season, with a good swell crashing up the sand, wind tangling hair, at dawn or sunset, with maybe even some rain thrown in for good measure, then it can be quite wild.  Perhaps though true wild swimming is simply where other people are not and/or nor is there much evidence that anyone has been here previously.  Such places in the UK though are vanishing few in number.

Let’s therefore say that this ‘wild’ or ‘outdoor’ swimmers guide is for places where, when you get out of the water, there is no-one to sell you an ice-cream or cappuccino.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

What Do You Need?  Some people would say water and nothing else, but for the sake of modesty and comfort let’s agree a towel and your swimwear as a bare minimum.  Goggles, ear plugs and a nose clip pack down small and add an underwater dimension to your adventure.  ‘Beach’ shoes or old trainers can be helpful on rocks or pebbles.  A waterproof ( not water resistant but water-PROOF) camera makes sharing your adventure simple.  If you plan to swim through the winter then a rash vest and/or similar top and leggings do conserve a little warmth but a silicone swimming hat conserves more warmth than expected, whilst others prefer to swim in woolly hats.  A wetsuit is the end game for some swimmers, but choosing a wetsuit is a topic in its own right.  There are then as many ‘optional extras’ as manufacturers can dream up and add ‘wild’ to the description in order to part you from your money as you can imagine.  My line is drawn at ‘dry robes’ and ‘tow floats’ but as already said the definition of wild is a bit hazy and some stop short of wetsuits or even swimwear.  After a while the items taken will begin to shape to the place visited.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

So Where Do You Want To Swim Today?  From where I am sat writing this it is under 20 minutes to a sandy town beach, a rocky headland or a tree shaded river bank.  40 minutes and I could be on a sweeping pebble beach or at a moorland river pool.  No wonder I am semi-aquatic.  To find such places you can either take out a paper map or go on-line, where satellite imagery can be wonderfully useful.  There are also many on-line web sites and social media groups with maps showing swimming places, all offering friendly advice on just about anything to get you to your destination.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

What Are The Dangers?  On the basis that you may be on your own, miles from any help even if you are in a group, and can drown in no time at all, then there is undoubtedly a need to muster all the common sense you have before setting out.  Some people say ‘never swim alone’, which I think is sad and besides swimming in a group is no guarantee of safety.  Just because you are in a group it does not mean someone will recognize you are in difficulty or have the skill to save you.  Furthermore swimming in a group does introduce peer pressure and you should never give in and swim further, for longer or in colder water than you want to.  In short, no matter how experienced you are or how far you have just travelled, sometimes you have to be prepared to just say ‘not today’.  If you are going alone then at least tell someone where and when you might be back.

To put the danger into context the number of people who drown annually in the UK whilst actively swimming is about 30.  Meanwhile 3 people drown in their bath, 10 in a pool and more walkers or runners drown than swimmers, which may seem unexpected except that if you are in either category and end up in water then you are probably ill prepared, fully clothed and have maybe injured yourself in the process, none of which will enhance your chance of surviving.  (In the UK these statistics are published in the WAID Report, WAter Incident Database, and can be found on-line.)

A list of things to definitely avoid begins with alcohol, it is almost certainly the case that most of the 30 swimmer drownings began with a drink.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Jumping or diving can be great fun but you must be able to see clearly that there are no obstructions or explore underwater first with goggles, but underwater depth and distance can be deceptive.  It doesn’t matter that it was clear yesterday, some fool may have thrown something in since then or something may have washed down the river.  Always check.

Cold shock.  If you are unprepared and enter cold water (less than 10C / 50F)  your body’s reflex is to take a sharp gasp which will not go well if you are underwater.  That reflex gasp probably killed most of the people who jumped into the water from the sinking Titanic.  With experience you can prepare for that initial contact and stifle that gasp reflex.

Hypothermia.  This takes longer to develop than most people appreciate, it is however insidious in that the more hypothermic you become the less you are aware of the cold.  In water at 0C if you are unacclimatised and unprepared you will be unconscious in about 15 minutes.  10C and that is closer to 30 minutes.  20C and it could take an hour.

There are 3 stages.  Borderline hypothermia and you start to shiver uncontrollably.  Mild hypothermia and you struggle to perform simple tasks like tying your shoelace as you’re getting dressed or talking coherently.  Full hypothermia and you become completely disoriented and ironically can feel too hot which makes people take clothes off instead of putting them on.

Afterdrop is an unpleasant but not life threatening effect of having been in cold water.  If you are in cold water there may well come a moment when you think ‘this is not so cold afterall’ and that should be the trigger moment to get out as it is a symptom of blood flow being cut off to your skin to conserve heat in your core and your body is not getting feedback from your skin to tell you it’s still cold.  Afterdrop then kicks in when you start to dry and dress and the warm core blood begins to circulates through the skin again, cools and returns to your core body.  This can result in shivering, headaches, blurred vision, chattering teeth, numbness in toes and fingers and in my case the feeling that ants with hot shoes are walking up and down my spine making me feel quite nauseous.  The feeling will pass but getting dressed quickly and walking briskly for 10 minutes should accelerate the recovery.

But Why?  It is cold, potentially life threatening and expensive, why do it?  Some people believe cold water swimming boosts their immune system and engenders a feeling of well-being.  For some people it actually does, for some people because they believe it then it actually does.  However, there have been many, many studies trying to establish a clear link between cold water swimming and improved health and the mere fact that every year there are more studies does suggest any link is proving hard to identify.  No matter what, after a while you will find you have both physically and mentally acclimatised to cold water and simply don’t notice that you are swimming in 6C water in January in just a pair of shorts (though maybe only for a short while).

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Living is life threatening, surviving and enjoying swimming it is about proper risk assessment and common sense.  We all have lapses, we all make mistakes and swimming in a lake or river miles from anywhere is never going to be 100% safe.

Expensive it is not, though it can be.  Who does not have an old t-shirt, pair of shorts and towel?  You don’t need new ones they are going to get dropped in mud, ground into sand, soaked with salt water, forgotten wet in a bag for a week.  You can go without the t-shirt, or the shorts and on a hot summer day there is no need for a towel, but let’s not.  You certainly do not need to buy all the optional extras and you certainly do not need a costly bicycle or expensive walking boots so it is possibly the least costly sports activity you can do outdoors.

You may get to see stunning sunrises or sunsets, have a friendly seal turn up, get buzzed by kingfishers, see salmon streak like silver bullets across the river bed or even see a wild otter or dolphin.  If I arrive at a beach that has been smoothed by the tide and I step off and make the first footprint in the sand then I am made up for the rest of the day.  You will probably make new friends and eat too much cake because it is an unwritten rule of swimming, ‘when two or more swimmers are gathered together there will be cake’.  You may be happy swimming with others at a few places or you may suddenly develop and urge to follow your local river back to its source and swim all of what you can and in the process you may see the world from a perspective that few or possibly none ever had before.  All that and it might keep you a bit fitter too.



Open Sky Swimming Devon Map